The kids are worried about the 8 miles we get to trek this afternoon pulling handcarts and who will be assigned to which handcart families. I'm worried about how the tennis shoes are going to look with my outfit once I take off the Franco Sarto silver-buttoned sandals and hit the trail. I think I would have been the woman who insisted on taking her piano in the handcart, and her books, and her favorite, bright red shawl with orange poppies embroidered on it. Flour? Pans? What? I might have wandered off to look at the stands of Indian paintbrush. Later, around the fire, Kevin would ask, "Have any of your children seen your mother?" "I don't know Dad. Last I saw, she was rounding a hill, running with wolves." "Well, I guess we can unload the piano."
But today, I'm not thinking about death and sacrifice, today I'm thinking about rescue. About what it takes to rescue and be rescued; how it's so much easier to rescue those who are dying politely, quietly desperate for your help.
At some point, say after the fifteenth bite maybe, if I were the rescuer, I would be wont to throw my hands up in the air and say, "Alright then, okay then . . . die, sucker . . . just sit in this oil and die." Which response might be marginally okay when it's penguins, except if they're on the endangered species list. (But judging by the colony at Boulders, the penguins are doing fine, Liberian ship captains notwithstanding.) But not such a good approach to take with people—especially people with children whom they drag along with them, to a fourth generation of misery.
As I think about this on the bus, William Faulkner-like stream-of-conscious, I wonder, when is it okay to abandon the rescue? When it gets unpleasant (penguin crap on your shoes); dangerous to limb (penguin beak slashing across your hands); dangerous to life (penguin beak in your eyeball penetrating to your brain)? When those to be rescued don't really want you there? Do you turn around and leave? Can you do that? Abandon ship mid-rescue?
I suppose an easy cut off point is when your tour of duty is up: your one year in Vietnam; your eighteen months in Billings, Montana; your nine months as the fifth-grade teacher at Wasatch School. Even though the need might not yet be met, the artificial finish line gives us a sense we've done our part. But for those rescues with no finite finish, with those that involve the people around you whose need you have noticed and responded to, I'm sensing it has something to do with what/who started you on that rescue; with the impulse that motivated you; with the purpose behind the impulse to rescue. I'm thinking that on one hand it's not okay to stop when the impulse ends. The decision to stop has to be more than just "I'm not feeling it" anymore. After the fifteenth bite, my impulse is to let the sucker drown.
I am reading Freshwater Road this week, about a young "high yellow" woman, Celeste, who leaves Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she is going to college in the sixties, for Pineyville, Mississippi to run a voting project to enlist black voters during Freedom Summer. As she stands on the street corner in Jackson handing out voter information sheets to black and white alike during her training, she thinks about her mother who has opted out of the race race by moving to New Mexico where classifications are not as rigid as in Pineyville, Mississippi. She senses her mother's disdain for what she is doing, her incredulity that Celeste would put out for people who would not do likewise:
She shook off thoughts of Wilamena's . . . assumed superiority, as if every kind or giving gesture toward another human being qualified as a favor that had to be reciprocated. Wilamena never got what the gesture did for the person offering—not as something to lord over others, but as an expression of one's humanity. Just like the graduation.
Wilamena couldn't put herself out to attend her own children's graduations from high school, and yet thought it just fine to continue asking them to come to New Mexico. Some people got it and some didn't. There was no blessed community in required reciprocity, but there certainly was in flat-out giving.
There in, perhaps, is an answer. We rescue because we are able. We give because we can and have. We continue until we are no longer able, or no longer needed. How long? Not when authority tells us to stop, but until we don't notice need anymore. In the legal world, if you give somebody notice, you make them aware that an action is starting against them. In my internal world, when I notice, I know I have been called to action. If I notice, like the Good Samaritan, I believe I have been called to rescue by a universe that knows all need. There is some combination of what I can give and what is needed that causes me to notice. Ironically, as I move to fulfill need, in my movement toward and my commitment to, I become more genuine, more filled with compassion, more human; and our community, more blessed.
Title: from Les Miserables, "A Little Fall of Rain."